Steve and homeowner Brad installing an insulated and heated water line on a site with too little soil for frost protection. Brad says the fully encased, 150-foot long installation has no noticeable effect on his electricity bill. (Photo by Robert Maxwell)

Steve and homeowner Brad installing an insulated and heated water line on a site with too little soil for frost protection. Brad says the fully encased, 150-foot long installation has no noticeable effect on his electricity bill. (Photo by Robert Maxwell)

Houseworks: Converting cottage to full-time home

Q: How realistic is it to convert a seasonal cottage built in the 1950s into a year-round home? My husband and I live in the city and we’d like to sell our house and take the proceeds to buy a small place by a lake to raise our family mortgage-free. The cabin we’re looking it needs a heat source, double pane windows, insulation and a water system that won’t freeze.

A: Moving from the city to country has been a trend for several decades, but it has gained new momentum with COVID.

These days I often hear from people with plans like yours, and the first thing I explain is that the challenge of turning a seasonal cottage into a full-time home is larger than meets the eye, especially when you’re dealing with a cold climate.

It’s entirely possible, but challenging. That’s because it’s difficult to make fundamental changes such as adding more insulation and changing the water system so it won’t freeze. Generally speaking, there are five main challenges:

1. Creating a water supply system that can operate reliably when it gets way below freezing.

2. Creating a waste water system that won’t freeze solid during winter.

3. Making floors warm enough to be bearable (and maybe even comfortable) when there’s no basement underneath.

4. Establishing an energy efficient building envelope when the structure was originally built without energy efficiency in mind.

5. Finding space for the additional mechanical equipment that might be needed in a year-round home i.e. furnace, water treatment filter, etc.

I have helped people do exactly the kind of thing you’re planning, so I know it’s possible.

The difficulty is that it takes a meticulous approach and specialized knowledge to pull something like this off. A regular contractor might be able to guess at how to meet these technical challenges.

But unless they’ve actually done this conversion several times before and seen how everything shakes down in the real world of a harsh winter, mistakes will probably be made. I’d look for a contractor who has actually done this sort of conversion. A mistake that leads to a sewage line freezing at Christmas, for instance, can leave you with drains that won’t work until April or May, after they defrost. I know people who have unsuccessfully moved into a cottage that they thought was winter-proof, only to find that they have to live without running water for a month.

Converting from three-season to four-season is too large of a topic for me to cover here, but the roughest of ballpark estimates for cost would be about $10K to $20K to winterize the kind of place I saw in the realtor’s link you sent. The end result could cost $5K or $30K. I can’t get more specific than that without seeing the place.

Finishing fences without pressure washing

Q: How can I prepare that part of a fence for finishing when I can’t fit between the shed and fence for pressure washing? I washed and stained the rest of the fence last year before finishing and it looks great.

A: Pressure washing is one way to prepare outdoor wood for finishing, but sanding works at least as well. In fact, my preferred method is sanding first, followed by washing second. You’ll find an 80-grit disk on a random orbit sander works well. A 6î random orbit sander makes about 50% faster progress than the more common 5î models. After you’re done sanding, use a leaf blower or a garden hose to remove all the dust. Your entire fence will look as good as the part that’s already finished.

Steve Maxwell admires well finished outdoor wood. Visit Steve online at BaileyLineRoad.com for free access to hundreds of articles and videos he’s created about hands-on how-to living in the Great White North.

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Installing rigid foam on top of a floor over a crawlspace is often the best way to add insulation. This foam is rigid enough to function without the need for support other than the foam and second subfloor. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)

Installing rigid foam on top of a floor over a crawlspace is often the best way to add insulation. This foam is rigid enough to function without the need for support other than the foam and second subfloor. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)

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